Park51, or when it’s virtuous not to have an opinion

10 09 2010

I have dipped in and out of discussions about the proposed community center, Cordoba House/Park51, in Lower Manhattan.  All in all, I’m struck by how hollow the discussion feels.  It’s either about sweeping political virtues (‘freedom of religion’ or ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘sacred remembrance’ or ‘defending our culture’ or etc.) or narrow personal feelings.  The reality of the situation seems hopelessly lost between those two poles.

It’s a combination toxic to healthy society because, without the mediating concrete situation, people tend to either identify more and more intensely with their political position for its own sake, absent its results or they disengage from political activity in general, abandoning the civil sphere to the ideologues.

The very way in which this local situation becomes nationalized so quickly points this out.  The situation really should be a local affair, it does not itself involve the nation on a large scale.  There was some property sold to some individuals, plans made in accordance with city regulations. Some people in the area suggested it was a bad idea.  People doing the building consider that.  All of that, from head to toe, is nothing special and should be straightforward local politics.

That’s just healthy civil life.

But to have, in a matter of weeks, this sort of thing become a national issue, with protesters and counter-protesters traveling into New York City, to have an endless parade of national figures weighing in on the matter, to have Qur’an burning protests planned in Florida…that’s not healthy civil life.

Sure, it might be worth a note in the national news about the Park51 cite and the local responses to it.  But now the news is being driven by the opinions of people who have no direct connection to the civil world in which it is occurring.

That is just chatter and gossip.  The media ought not be just one more way to talk about other people’s business.

Some, I’m sure, think that news is always gossip, always just this talking about other people’s business.  But in this they are grossly mistaken.  The news can report without descending into gossip.

Part of the problem is that the media isn’t a distinct entity anymore.  It’s diffuse, including all manner of outlets from the corporate to the personal.  The consumer of media can very quickly become a producer of media.  It’s no longer simply a matter of holding the corporations to a higher standard (and we do need to do that!), but a matter of holding ourselves to a higher standard.

We really need to learn to respect the distance between ourselves and others.  We need, need, need, NEED to stop having an opinion about everything, especially about things that we really aren’t involved in.

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